A first step to getting all the ‘white’ out of the democracy reform movement
Gerzon is president of Mediators Foundation, which incubates projects in the the democracy reform community that promote bridge-building and collaboration. His most recent book is "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide" (Berrett-Koehler, 2016)
At birth, my grandson Isaiah's cry pierced the air. Later, as I held him in my arms, I wept with joy. As I gently placed him on his mother's belly he started nursing; his father leaned over and cradled them both. It was an unforgettable sight: a light man's arm, holding a dark woman's arm, cradling a baby the color of ... beauty.
That's the moment it struck me: My grandson was not in the white club. This sweet innocent child, now a witty 12-year-old, would be called African-American — or "black." His actual skin color is Sicilian, or perhaps Armenian, both now legally considered "white." But because his mother's side is West African (with a trace of Cherokee), he won't be allowed in the club. He will have to check a different box — and so the lie continues.
If the democracy reform movement is to make a paradigm shift on race, we have work to do — not just on our society, but for those among us who are "white." Too many of us still have a racial mindset that is obsolete and, despite our best intentions, part of the problem.
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Today we hear endlessly in progressive circles about white privilege, white nationalism and white supremacy. The debates always rage about the different nouns, not the common adjective. Having heard these terms most of my life, I thought I understood them. But only when I became a grandfather of "African-American" children did I fully realize the problem begins long before privilege, nationalism or supremacy. It actually begins with a lie called "white."
To deconstruct the lie I've been re-educating myself by reading books about race. Most recently, I've been drawn to books by Ta-Naheisi Coates, Theodore Allen, Nell Painter and Ibram X. Kendi. I now better understand what I was feeling when I first held Isaiah in my arms in the delivery room. And I learned that my old way of thinking about race — which still afflicts much the democracy reform movement — was part of the problem, not the solution.
All these terms I had so unconsciously used — "whites," "people of color," "blacks," "minorities" — require deconstruction. And there is no more fundamental place to start, particularly for a white man like me, than with that very concept: "white."
When the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no "white people" there. Only several generations later do colonial records show evidence that anyone called themselves "white." Back then they simply called themselves English because "white" had not yet been invented. That's right — invented.
"It sounds pretty outrageous to think about white people as an invention," wrote Jacqueline Battalora in "Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People." But it was invented for a purpose. By the early 1700s, because European scholars were eager to "prove" the superiority of their own skin color, the concept of the "white" race began circulating on both sides of the Atlantic.
Foremost among these scholars of race was Carl Linnaeus, the botanist often called the "Father of Taxonomy." In his "Systema Naturae," he categorized human beings into four races and summarized his views of their defining characteristics. Those racist stereotypes were so highly regarded at the time that the renowned French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he knew "no greater man on earth" than Linnaeaus.
Why didn't we rebel against his pseudo-scientific theory? For the very simple reason that it served a socio-economic purpose: to unite "white" people. Unlike the "English" category, "white" made sure those with lighter skin, even the bonded laborers who were the vast majority in many of the colonies, stuck together. "E pluribus unum" became our motto: "Out of many, one," But what made us unum was not our shared citizenship, but the convenient new category "white" that ensured the vast majority of the population would remain loyal to the landed gentry.
"White" was a social glue that served the wealthy landowners. Instead of identifying with their fellow slaves (who were "black"), or with the native peoples (who were "red"), whites who were poor, exploited and indebted were often put in charge. They could work for their emancipation; black people couldn't. Offspring of white bonded laborers could become free; children of black slaves were destined to slavery. As depicted so powerfully in the film "Twelve Years A Slave," even the most ignorant and incompetent "white" was by definition of higher status than the most educated and skillful "black." The permanent underclass of slaves made everyone else "privileged" by comparison.
So a first step the overwhelmingly "white" democracy reform movement should take is to free ourselves from our own racial boxes. Let's start with me: My father was a Jew, for most of history definitely not part of the "white club." Testing of my DNA reveals my ancestors come from Spain and Yemen. My skin is light brown. (Only some albinos actually are "white.")
So let's get real about race:
• Stop accepting public discourse that considers "white" a racial category.
• Don't call others "red," "yellow" or "black" unless it is their preference.
• Promote education that deconstructs this obsolete hierarchy.
• Question anyone who still endorses the "majority-minority" construction of reality.
• Politely but firmly inform those who talk of defending their "white nation" about its history.
I thank Isaiah and his siblings for teaching me that colors are not categories in which any of us are supposed to live.
Since checking the "white" box gives me privilege my grandson may not have, I intend to use it to take apart the boxes our ancestors invented. It is time to play our part in ending the tragedy of this cynical, oppressive, racial hierarchy. Together, as part of the democracy reform movement, let's build a technicolor future in which my grandson and I have the same rights and responsibilities, the same powers and possibilities. Let's work for a racial future where nothing, except our age, divides me from my grandson.